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A Case of Forgetfulness in a Major Key

How could musician leave a rare cello on his front steps, where it was stolen? Turns out it's all too easy.

May 13, 2004|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

How could Los Angeles Philharmonic cellist Peter Stumpf have left a $3.5-million Stradivarius on his front doorstep overnight?

That was the question many in the classical music world were asking after a thief on a bicycle plucked the 17th century treasure off the steps of Stumpf's Los Feliz home last month.

But to fellow philharmonic musicians, the cellist's lapse is not that hard to understand.

After years of making music, players said, their instrument becomes an extension of themselves -- something they carry around so often they sometimes stop thinking about it.

"It's like your purse. It's easy not to think about it because you're so used to it. Who has never lost her purse?" said Dale Silverman, associate principal violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "Obviously accidents happen and none of us are above making mistakes."

After all, many famous musicians have at one time or another mistakenly left their instruments behind.

In January, violinist Gidon Kremer left his $3-million Guarneri del Gesu violin on an Amtrak train. In 1999, New York police helped Yo-Yo Ma recover his $2.5-million Stradivarius cello after he left it in a New York taxi. And two years later, cellist Lynn Harrell also left his $4-million Stradivarius in a taxi, when he got out at his New York apartment.

Since the philharmonic's Stradivarius was stolen April 25, the organization has publicly stood behind Stumpf, who continues to perform using a cello borrowed from one of his colleagues.

Privately, some philharmonic musicians said they were surprised that Stumpf could forget the cello in its large silver case overnight. But most expressed more sympathy than anger toward him.

"I'm sure people were thinking, 'I'm glad it wasn't me,' " said Lawrence Sonderling, who performs in the philharmonic's first violin section. "It's easy to point fingers from a position of safety and say, 'Well I think he was foolish,' or whatever.... A few days after it happened, I got a note in the mail from my dad that said, 'Watch your violin.' "

Sonderling also said he was not surprised that Stumpf, upon learning the cello was gone, called a colleague to ask to borrow a cello for that afternoon's performance before alerting police.

"The show must go on. That's part of our training as musicians," he said. "One might say his judgment wasn't the best. But I could certainly understand why he was thinking that."

Philharmonic officials would not provide details about their policy on lending rare instruments to musicians and whether those rules have been changed since the theft.

The philharmonic owns a small collection of instruments made by Antonio Stradivari and other well-known makers and for years has lent them to players without incident. Musicians sign loan agreements with the orchestra in which the philharmonic provides insurance and musicians take responsibility for the instrument's maintenance and follow reasonable precautions to keep it safe.

"Musicians who are on this level are assumed to know how to take care of an instrument," Sonderling said. "It would be insulting to tell somebody that you have to keep it in a locked closet."

More than two weeks have passed and authorities have not recovered the stolen instrument -- one of about 60 Stradivarius cellos in existence.

Last week, an anonymous donor offered a $50,000 reward for the cello's safe return.

After 23 years as a professional cellist, Stumpf began playing the Stradivarius cello when he joined the philharmonic two years ago. Most major orchestras own a collection of fine instruments, and playing one of them is often a privilege offered to senior players and section leaders

"I'd never owned an instrument anywhere near that level in my entire career," Stumpf said. "It's been a long time waiting and suddenly being given it and not expecting it, it was an incredible privilege."

Stumpf arrived home late at night from performing a philharmonic concert in Santa Barbara, walked into his house through his front door but forgot the cello on the front steps.

He was getting ready to leave for a concert the next morning when he discovered the cello was missing. He called a colleague and asked him to bring an extra cello to the concert.

As soon as he arrived at Disney Hall, he notified philharmonic officials, who contacted police.

A home security camera across the street from Stumpf's house caught the theft on tape. The grainy video shows a young man -- probably a teenager from the neighborhood -- getting off his bike to pick up the cello and crashing into some trash cans before getting away.

Philharmonic musicians say no one can be feeling worse about the incident than Stumpf.

"You feel horrible for the guy, and you know that he feels horrible," said violist Jerry Epstein. "We're hoping whoever took it will panic and see that they've got something they can't sell."

The theft has made violinist Michele Bovyer more careful with her instrument.

"You are much more careful where you have it and where you put it," Bovyer said. "For me, it's part of the body. To lose something like that is like losing a limb."

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Times staff writer Erin Ailworth contributed to this report.

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